Freedom of Expression is not the only Victim

A day before the presidential elections results were officially announced, popular TV satirist Bassem Youssef announced the end of his comedy show, El Bernameg, telling reporters he was fed up with worrying about his and his family’s safety. MBC, the Saudi channel that gave him a platform, he added, had come under pressure to cancel the show. A decision to temporarily suspend it in May was justified using a thinly veiled argument: they did not want Youssef to influence voters as they took to the polls. It was a last ditch attempt to “protect the show” and a hint at how influential Youssef is in shaping public opinion. “The cancelation of the show gives a stronger, clearer and louder message than its continuation or anything that would have been said in it,” he said as he took to the downtown Radio Theater stage for the last time.

Youssef had mocked the hysteria and media hype that paved former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s road to the presidency. He ridiculed a device the military promoted as a cure for AIDs and Hepatitis C, and mirrored the sexual innuendos of pro-military anchors to expose the absurdity of media discourse. The message this cancelation sends is that for the Sisi government to survive, this frenzy has to continue unchallenged – not even with the few terse punchlines that Youssef made at Sisi’s previous interviews during the press conference.

While the show was cancelled before Sisi took office, and can’t be traced back to security agencies, pundits are now aware that criticism has no place in his regime. The red lines are being drawn around the presidential palace.

There are more underlying messages. Egypt’s new strongman apparently can’t tolerate one episode of what his predecessor Mohamed Morsi endured for a year. Youssef said Morsi wanted to silence him but simply didn’t have the ability. He was summoned and questioned by the prosecutor under Morsi. In the wake of Morsi’s removal, his show was terminated by its original host, Egypt’s CBC. When he moved to MBC, the channel was subject to signal scrambling. If it weren’t for the strength of MBC, his show might have been canceled after the first episode, Youssef explained. Further pressure awaited Youssef and his crew outside the theater, where protesters congregated on Wednesdays as they taped the show.

While El Bernameg’s cancellation is celebrated as a victory for these protesters, it is an act perceived by others as a sign of weakness. A smart government knows the repercussions of silencing someone as high profile as Youssef – the show has the highest ratings in the region. The government simply appears unafraid to embarrass itself, and this is worrying.  

On the same day, another space for freedom of expression appeared to be narrowing, as the privately owned daily, Al-Watan leaked a ministry of interior document asking companies to provide a system enabling wide and comprehensive surveillance of social media sites. The government wants to analyze and track data and users in order to police the space in which it has little control: the internet.

Prior to Sisi’s election, authorities arrested and convicted activists lobbying against repressive laws and the constitution. Several rights activists and former detainees claim security officials try to gain access to their social media profiles to tap into dissent networks while questioning them in prison. Dozens were arrested based on material posted online, the Ministry of Interior said. Authorities have relied on citizens’ reports against each other’s use of social media, information acquired through interrogation, and the monitoring of widely known social media profiles and pages. The new system it hopes to acquire would institutionalize the surveillance, making it more thorough and far reaching. And it won’t be limited to politics, but on a definition of national security in which dissent and ideas deviating from the norm are considered threats worthy of flagging and prosecution.

The leaked document specifically mentions keeping tabs on social mores, debauchery, promoting sectarianism and racism, and contempt of religion. The ministry wants a technical company to provide it with the means to become the moral and religious police of the cyberspace, limiting the discussion of ideas it deems inappropriate.

Before these plans were announced, Kirollous Shawky was arrested in Luxor for liking a Facebook page, and now faces charges of contempt of religion, joining countless others who are serving prison sentences on charges of blasphemy, sentenced both under Morsi and after his ouster. In September 2013, Fouad Dawood was sentenced to a year in prison for writing on Facebook what his colleagues deemed offensive to Islam’s Prophet Mohamed. The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression notes several ongoing court cases and investigations that depend on material posted online and the loose definition of terms like those listed in the leaked document.

The new plans ignore the fact that government practices themselves are often a key part of the underlying causes of sectarianism. Pinpointing security attacks on religious minorities or discriminatory policies could be dangerous, as the ministry sees noting its slipups as a problem in need of monitoring. The authorities’ age-old practice of using broad and vague definitions of crimes to prosecute citizens will have a wider pool of potential offenders, based on details of the new surveillance system. It will be impossible to arrest everyone, but Egyptians are familiar with the tactic and impact of forcing people into self-censorship.

The repercussions of this far exceed matters of freedom of speech and the invasion of privacy. It will have a negative impact on the creativity and cultural development of a population that is forced to think twice before posing questions about religion, social traditions and morality to their immediate online communities. The impact can’t be gauged in statistical form, but there’s something to be said about the cultural deterioration of the country through years of authoritarian rule. The access to knowledge and space for expression internet provided in the past decade coincided with the slow expansion of the underground cultural scene.

The uproar that materialized in reaction to these restrictions will be short-lived and limited in effect. They will eventually find their supporters and will easily win the approval of the older generation that disproportionately outnumbered the younger voters in last month’s elections. Monitoring cyberspace is tantamount to rewarding this generation by reinstating their paternal methods on a state level – by the government assuming the role of a father always watching and always ready with punishment. Reigning in the freethinking of their kids and students that the older generation deem immature will condemn the new generation and the country to a fate of arrested development.  

Cairo University Political Science Professor Ahmed Abd Rabou warned of the consequences of not having a venue for people to release and express their opinions. “Repression will explode sooner or later.” Youssef’s satire was one of these few venues left, the most potent and loudest one on the scene. “Expressing our opinions, even if we disagree, in a civilized way through satire and comedy is better than using weapons against each other on the street,” Youssef said. 

Sarah El Sirgany is a nonresident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. She is a Cairo-based journalist and television producer, contributing to regional and international publications and networks including CNN, the New York Times, Al-Monitor and Mada Masr. 

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Image: PHOTO: Popular Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef talks during a news conference in Cairo June 2, 2014. Egypt's top TV satirist said on Monday his show had been canceled. (Mohamed Abdel Ghany/Reuters)